Despite the new-found wealth at the turn of the new millennium, many Asian countries are ageing rapidly. The changing demography places much strain on the healthcare sector as costs rise in tandem with economic growth. Underlying these changes, there is another layer of public health risk that may threaten the stability of these societies: the ageing healthcare workforce itself.

According to a recent report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), South-East Asian countries will experience one of the largest increase in the total number of healthcare workers by 2030. It is estimated that the region will have just under 11 million qualified health workers including physicians, nurses and midwives, dentists, pharmacists, and all other related categories.

This is closely followed by the Western Pacific regions with more than 17 million healthcare workers by 2030. It is worth noticing that this region not only includes countries with a massive population such as China, Japan and South Korea, smaller nations like Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are also featured in this category.

Such tremendous growth in the number of health workers is certainly impressive, but these regions will still suffer insufficient manpower in the sector according to the report. It is estimated that the Western Pacific region will need an additional 1.4 million healthcare workers to achieve an effective coverage, while the South-East Asian region needs an incredible 4.7 million additional manpower. This could spell disaster for the people especially those that live in poorer or rural regions which are already lagging behind in terms of healthcare coverage.

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“Getting old before becoming rich”

The economic prosperity enjoyed by many Asian countries can be partly attributed to the "substantial demographic dividends" as coined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, as the population age, they are set to become a demographic "tax" instead.

"Adapting to ageing could be especially challenging for Asia, as populations living at relatively low per capita income levels in many parts of the region are rapidly becoming old,” said IMF in its Regional Economic Outlook for Asia and Pacific regions.

“Parts of Asia risk growing old before becoming rich” the report stated.

This has serious implication for local governments to implement effective policy to maintain health, as wealth disparity grows between regions. The situation is aggravated by the net migration out of these rural areas and the countries' inability to produce a sufficient number of new healthcare workers in time.

The march towards an aged society

Many Asian countries are progressively, and inevitably, transforming into ageing or aged nations. There is a clear association between the economic prosperity of a nation and the longevity of its people. As the population becomes wealthier, they can afford better healthcare services and enjoy a higher standard of living. Malaysia is no exception.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, senior citizens aged 65 and above constitute 6.2% of the total population in 2017 and the number shows a steady increasing trend. The country is expected to reach the "ageing population" threshold by 2020 where more than 7% of Malaysians are of old age.

"Malaysians are living longer. So, it won't be surprising if the demand for nursing homes increases," said Deputy Minister of Health YB Dato' Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya.

Malaysia is set to become an “ageing population” by 2020 where more than 7% of the people are of old age.
Malaysia is set to become an “ageing population” by 2020 where more than 7% of the people are of old age.

Averting the crisis

To help steer these countries away from certain public health crises, the healthcare community must re-examine its priorities and undergo transformations if necessary.

While speaking to Forbes, Dr Indrajit Hazarika, Technical Officer of Health Workforce Policy in the WHO Western Pacific regional office, commented that adequate planning is paramount to tackle the problem, "given the criticality of the workforce in health systems, and the substantial time and resources invested to educate and develop a skilled health workforce."

The WHO advocates for better investment in the recruitment and education of younger workers, and also to encourage more women to join the sector.

As the Asian population continues to age, the wellbeing of millions of people will depend on how quickly the local government can close the gap between the supply and demand for healthcare workers. Given the current rate of demographic transition, sustainable, long-term healthcare policy reforms should take on a particular urgency – in order to protect the vulnerable populations and maintain the regions' potential for continued economic growth. MIMS

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